Taking the voices of Hong Kong youth seriously

October 27, 2022 08:57
Photo: RTHK

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is, “How can we help the youth of Hong Kong?” Alternatively, “Is there hope still for the youth of Hong Kong?”

The standard answers by many to such questions, would be to invoke the long roster of virtues and strengths Hong Kong has – the textbook ‘Hong Kong story’ that would be told over and over again. “We’ve got very low taxes… we’ve got common law jurisdiction… we have a gigantic market to our north… we’re an economically liberal and vibrant international hub…”

But these answers, excuse my frankness, mean very little for 90% to 95% of our youth. They mean nothing to those who are toiling away in searching for a job with financial reward and a tenable career path. They mean nothing to those stranded in caged homes, living lethargically albeit swept up in incessant labour that they cannot opt out of – an endless cycle of work, sleep, work, sleep, work, and nothing else. These words offer little to no reassurance to those who feel politically disenfranchised and excluded from a system that is both ossified and complacent. Ossified in its mindset, complacent in its self-congratulating rhetoric.

The truth of the matter is, you can’t feed a city with rankings. Nor, indeed, can promises and grand, sweeping statements sustain a coherent policy regime. What is needed here, is a genuine olive branch – one that cuts across the political divide, that reaches out to those voices who are not taken seriously for they do not come dressed up in the dogma and nomenclature that only a select few in the city in fact comprehend, that seeks to include and respond to with empathy the angry, perhaps misguided, and perhaps logically inconsistent value propositions and beliefs held by our future generations.

Taking the voices of the youth seriously is a theoretically neat proposition. “Work with the youth!”, they say. “Listen to our youth!”, they chant. Yet without substantive reforms and concrete measures, none of these slogans matter. Sure, it may well be that a prosperous and thriving youth is crucial for our country’s success – and it may even be that our officials and politicians can repeat this mantra with no interruption or hesitation. With the dearth of outreach efforts in the status quo, however, such a mantra would remain little more than a political token, one wielded to secure self-serving gains; to express ostensible loyalty – and nothing more.

Don’t get me wrong here, I do think there are excellent folks in the establishment who have an eye and ear to the plights and needs of the youth. I do not intend for this to be a criticism directed towards politicians or bureaucrats at large – there are many whose excellent efforts deserve to be credited. However, a systemic overhaul is indeed very much needed, not only to in fact incorporate the voices of all youth – but also to signal to those who are skeptical about the system, that there is room and space for organic reform from within.

Three concrete suggestions. First, there needs to be a politically diverse, plural, and potentially even oppositional youth think-tank set up within the government, with direct inputs and involvement in policy research, advocacy, and implementation. Government officials should be required to address and respond to the suggestions of these youth – as opposed to treating the entire process as a rubber-stamp one-way street, e.g. the youth must have a say over the details and practicalities of policymaking, especially when it comes to domains such as education, community management and engineering, and, of course, youth engagement.

Second, where the government falls short, the private sector should pick up the slack. More mentorship programmes and opportunities, where youth can learn via shadowing or collaborating horizontally with more ‘senior’ mentors (preferably individuals who do not prize themselves for their seniority and end up more patronising than helpful), should be established through private sectoral efforts. Match-making and pairing up youth and more experienced ‘peers’ with similar backgrounds, life stories, and value priors, would be crucial in facilitating genuine trans-generational dialogue. Closed-room discussions, deliberations, and even debates would be a helpful means of kickstarting the conversation.

Third, media outlets should undertake active steps to platform and spread the voices of our future generations. Few folks would turn to radical measures if there were viable alternatives – we should learn from the errs we have committed in the past, and ensure that wherever is possible, the needs and views of our youth can be heard and disseminated, pondered over and engaged with, without their resorting to extreme and flagrantly disruptive measures. Dissent and discontents cannot be defused through repressive measures – inclusion, not exclusion, is the way to go. As a city that is renowned for the innovativeness and dynamism of our civil society, we can and must do more to empower our youth.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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